Monday, October 26, 2015

Reflection on "Safe Spaces: Making Schools and Communities Welcoming to LGBT Youth

"Safe Spaces" by Annemarie Vaccaro, Gerri August and Megan S. Kennedy explores how the LGBT  community is portrayed (or not portrayed) in schools. The authors cite numerous examples of teachers who have tried to incorporate tolerance toward LGBT people, but also the resistance they face for doing so.

One excerpt I found particularly interesting was about history curriculum (I'm sure that isn't surprising).
History classrooms are no different, even though the themes of oppression and the struggle for civil rights are routinely examined. In these discussions, students learn of the exciting campaigns for human dignity and constitutional protections waged by African Americans, women and people with disabilities. These history lessons promote democratic ideals: they celebrate freedom and reinforce our commitment to justice. But they can also mislead. First, such history lessons often relegate the civil rights struggle to the past, as if all underrepresented groups have attained equal rights...such history lessons typically overlook one campaign for dignity in constitutional protections; that of the LGBT community. The bus boycott of Montgomery, yes; resistance at Stonewall, no.

I thought this was so pertinent because I am definitely guilty of this. I had to look up the Stonewall riots when I read this. This reading came at a perfect time, because I am teaching the 20's right now in my US II class. I had the students read "Let America Be America Again" by Langston Hughes, which is one of my favorite poems (and also would've fit in well with Dan's lesson a few weeks ago). It's about how the American Dream doesn't apply to everyone, but it also leaves out a few marginalized groups - women and gay people. I asked the students about who was left out. Most students came up with Asian immigrants. With some prodding, a few said women and one student in the back shouted out "homosexuals!" Some kids giggled and their eyes widened, but I didn't see any grimaces or dirty looks. We had a short discussion about it, but most students were not very vocal.

I also thought that the idea of the negative or dismissal of a teachable moment is just as profound for students as a positive one. The example the authors gave was one in which a student was explaining his family to another student. The student got in trouble because the teacher didn't think it was appropriate for him to talk about such a sensitive issue in school.

In my previous school, the environment was very intolerant of gay students. Without getting into too much detail in such a public forum, a student's rights were violated and he was physically punished at home because administration believed he was gay. It happened again with the same student a few weeks later. To my knowledge, the student never took any action, but this type of behavior sets a precedent for all other students. The school's adjustment counselor at the time was gay and took it upon herself to be a positive advocate for this student. As did his History and English teachers. However, in an environment like that, three staff members are not enough to overpower bigotry like that. This is the complete opposite of what Safe Spaces is talking about.

I would like to think that in such a progressive state of Massachusetts, situations like the one above would not happen. I'm just happy that student had a few staff members who stood by him when administration did not. I think that the tools and suggestions given by August, Vaccaro and Kennedy would greatly improve the culture in schools so that hopefully, the above example would be avoided.


  1. What a sad story, Liz, but good for those who did stand up for this young man. I would hope that there were students there who were supportive of him as well, but perhaps were afraid of the response they might receive in such a negative environment.
    That passage in "Safe Spaces" caught my attention as well. I stopped reading to think about the reflection questions that followed, and realized that I knew very little about Stonewall as well. Interesting that we are both following the path upon which we were lead by our own teachers.

  2. Your story about the student who was abused really struck me. The staff members who supported him might have literally been throwing him a life line. What happened could have led to many important teachable moments at that school, but unlikely, given the climate of bigotry.

    Thank you for the link to the Langston Hughes poem. I don't think it will ever stop being relative.

  3. I think it is great how you were able to immediately take the readings and incorporate them into class! It's that first tentative step that will help create those spaces. I haven't figured out where that moment might be for my classes yet.

  4. Hate to admit it, but I do not think I have ever read the Langston Hughes poem, so that was an awesome addition to this blog post. Another part of your post that resonated with me was the piece about not knowing what the stonewall riots were; I didn't know what they were either until I came to this class. Time to open up my eyes even more..